Boston Globe MAY 9, 2006 - by Joan Anderman


When you're a venerated pop musician entering your fifth decade as a recording artist and you title your new album Surprise, there had better be one.

Paul Simon has certainly pulled it off on paper, enlisting the talents of Brian Eno as sonic landscaper for his tenth solo collection, in stores today. The pairing of the folk-rock singer-songwriter and the ambient sound pioneer is counterintuitive and fabulously provocative. Was Simon, at sixty-four, plotting to jump-start his recently lacklustre career with an excursion into electronica? Would this turn out to be an inspired notion or a call for help from an ageing troubadour? Most important, is it brilliant or embarrassing?

Surprise isn't radical enough to be either. But it's a first-rate Paul Simon record, which is in itself something of a surprise in the wake of 2000's DOA art-pop effort You're The One and Simon's Broadway debacle, The Capeman. Despite their glaring differences, Simon and Eno - a former member of the art-rock band Roxy Music who's known for his ground-breaking production work with Talking Heads and U2, among many others - share some fundamental qualities. Both are elegant craftsmen, restless intellectuals, and world-music devotees, and that common ground is where they met during four writing and recording sessions, each lasting less than a week, that took place over the course of two years.

The result is signature Simon, if not transformed than thoroughly refreshed. On the album's opening track, How Can You Live In The Northeast?, electric guitars are funnelled through Eno's machines and come out bent and scuffed. Simon's classy rhythm section moves with precision through mysterious terrain that glistens and beeps. There's motion and luminosity, and it grows as Simon recites his growing litany of unanswerable questions, to gently ominous proportions.

Surprise is an aggressively introspective, powerfully unemotional album. As ever, Simon's musings on the foibles of hearts and minds are couched in urbane poetry, and Eno's soundscapes mirror Simon's deepening alienation. His present plan is to Sit down, shut up / Think about God / And wait for the hour of my rescue, as outlined in Everything About It Is A Love Song, where burbling beats and jagged washes materialise and retreat, underscoring the relentless and random nature of modern life. Simon's determination to meet the march of time head-on hits a wall on the funkified Outrageous, when he confesses, thrillingly, that I'm tired / 900 sit-ups a day / I'm painting my hair / the color of mud / the color of mud, okay?

Simon turns his attentions outward on the stately meditation Wartime Prayers, the album's literal and spiritual centrepiece, a gospel/jazz/folk/fuzz cocktail that aptly mashes confusion and consolation. Elsewhere, Simon and Eno update the world-pop hybrid the songwriter established so masterfully on Graceland with mixed results. Both Beautiful and Another Galaxy fuse the warm flow of congas and bright guitars with a machine-made undertow to complex, glowing effect.

But that delicate balance topples on I Don't Believe, where space-age shards collide, painfully, with melodic snippets from Silent Night. Father And Daughter, an amiable relic from 2002's Wild Thornberrys soundtrack and the only song not given the Eno treatment, is likewise out of whack. Maybe Simon wanted a feel-good finale, but on the heels of this ambitious, uneasy collection, it just feels wrong.